LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- Nearly two dozen suspected members of the notorious gang Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, were arrested during an early morning sweep by federal and local law-enforcement agencies at multiple Los Angeles-area locations on Wednesday, officials said.
The operation, in which 47 federal search warrants were served, stemmed from RICO charges against the gang, according to a news release from the Department of Justice.
The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations indictment targeted the "current top leaders of the Los Angeles faction of the transnational gang and other key operatives."
"Beginning in June 2014, the task force had been conducting an investigation on the MS-13 criminal enterprise. The case has targeted the leadership and the most violent actors of the MS-13 street gang in Los Angeles," said Deidre Fike, the assistant director in charge of the FBI's L.A. office, at a Wednesday mor,ing press conference.
At the press conference, Sandra Brown, acting U.S. Attorney for California's Central District, described MS-13 as "a gang that started here in Los Angeles but which has spread its mayhem across the United States and Central America."
Brown said the infamous group was responsible for the murders of rival gang members and innocent bystanders, as well as drug-dealing and extortion. She noted that Wednesday's sweep netted 21 federal defendants who are among the 44 now in custody in the case.
Those arrestees include Mara Salvatrucha's former top leader in L.A., as well as a dozen other so-called "shot-callers" who oversaw cliques, investigators said.
Most of the suspects were facing decades in federal prison without the possibility of parole, according to Brown. Authorities said the charges ranged from drug dealing to murder. Two of the suspects were eligible for the death penalty, officials stated.
The acting U.S. Attorney said Wednesday's operation -- conducted by the FBI, DEA, Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and LAPD -- was part of the largest-ever crackdown on MS-13 in the L.A. area.
One agency that was not involved in the raids was the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, even though many of the suspects were in the country illegally, according to officials.
"This has nothing to do with their immigration status. This has to do with their criminal status. I will add that many of the witnesses that allowed us to do this by their statements also have immigration issues," Los Angeles Police Department Chief Charlie Beck said.
Beck recalled that he had arrested his first MS-13 member more than 35 years ago. He pointed out that the gang originated in L.A. and later became the city's "number-one gang export."
He went on to say that MS-13, once the No. 1 most violent criminal gang in Los Angeles, has fallen to No. 7 on the dubious list. The police chief attributed that in part to the LAPD's methods in curtailing gang activity.
"We know how to do it the right way," Beck said.
According to officials, three suspects wanted during the raids remained at large. Authorities said they expected more arrests to occur in connection with the investigation in the future.
MS-13 crackdown: LA crime sweep nets 21 gang suspects
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